Victoria Moore: all roads lead to Rhône

The region that put a sparkle in Napoleon’s eye is finding new favour – with still whites  Credit: Alamy

St Péray is the forgotten appellation of the Rhône. At one time, its sparkling wine was more expensive than champagne. Napoleon was allegedly a big fan and old order books show Wagner requested 100 bottles of it while he was writing Parsifal (though I’m not sure what this says about the wine). The now-obscure place was also one of the first in France to be granted an appellation contrôlée, winning its status in December 1936, meaning it will celebrate its 80th birthday this year. And then, despite the acclaim, in the post-war years, it fell off our mental map.

St Péray is never going to be a household name – its wines are distinctly more connoisseur than supermarket shopper in appeal

Albéric Mazoyer, partner and manager at one of the region’s best wine producers, Domaine Alain Voge, says: “Up until the Sixties, St Péray was an appellation with a good reputation for sparkling wine. But because of the cost of production and the pressure of housing, the vine surface decreased until it fell to under 50 hectares.”

This makes St Péray tiny by any standards and positions it poorly to compete with the much cheaper fizz being made in so many other parts of France, as well as the rest of the world. But over the past two decades there has been a quiet revolution; St Péray has been reawakened. Don’t get me wrong, the place is still “the last unexploited area of the northern Rhône”, as specialist Rhône wine merchant Jason Yapp puts it. But things have been happening and they are worth noting – such as the fact that St Péray’s story is no longer all about the fizz.

Jase Yapp says, “the last unexploited area of the northern Rhône” Credit:  Christopher Jones

First, though, a bit of geography. St Péray is in the southerly part of the northern Rhône, tucked under Cornas, on the west bank of the river opposite the urban centre of Valence. It continues to make the sparkling wine for which it was once so well known, using marsanne and roussanne. This can be delicious, with an apricot and toasted almond warmth that fades to a clean, crisp swipe. But sparkling wine now accounts for just five per cent of St Péray’s output. The revival is all about still wine, all of it white, made from marsanne and roussanne, making this place even more of an anomaly amid the sea of grand syrah that surrounds it. 

That’s not to say sparkling isn’t still an important calling card. As Yapp says: “The only other sparkling wine in the area is Clairette de Die [made from floral muscat and clairette] and the big players like to have a toehold here so they have bubbles to pour that aren’t champagne.”

It’s not a question of which grape is better but a matter of style. Roussanne is always more sunny, much more aromatic, fruity and peachy. Marsanne has a bitternessDomaine Voge

But the real draw is this place’s newfound ability to make sophisticated still whites that seem designed to contradict Robert Parker’s dismissive statement in his 1997 Wines of the Rhône Valley: “Dull, somewhat odd, uninteresting wines that are heavy and diffuse.”

I tasted my first only recently. It was from Auguste Clape, who is better known for his Cornas, but also makes 4,000 bottles of St Péray every year. It had a combination of gentle peach, mineral uplift and atmospheric spice that persuaded me to find out more.

Contemporary St Péray has more dynamism than, say, white Hermitage. It’s about stone fruit and savour, and its honeysuckle element feels more restrained. The prospect of making it has encouraged locals to plant more. It has also drawn négociants into the appellation – Chapoutier, Jaboulet Aîné and Vins de Vienne, run by the trio of François Villard, Yves Cuilleron and Pierre Gaillard, all have a presence here. As a result, St Péray now has 31 industry players and the area under vine has risen by more than 50 per cent, although it remains small, at 86 hectares, with just four of those dedicated to sparkling wine and the rest committed to still.

Marsanne is the dominant grape variety and while some producers work with a marsanne-roussanne blend, others prefer to make their still whites entirely from marsanne. 

Domaine Voge is one of these. “We do have five per cent roussanne on the domaine,” says Albéric Mazoyer. “But this goes into the bulles. I want to retain the style of our still wines, which is much more with the bitterness and dry quality of marsanne. It’s not a question of which grape is better but a matter of style. Roussanne is always more sunny, much more aromatic, fruity and peachy. Marsanne has a bitterness.”

St Péray is never going to be a household name – its wines are distinctly more connoisseur than supermarket shopper in appeal. Also, they barely get out of France – roughly 10 per cent of St Péray is exported and the ones that are can be found only in specialist merchants. But if you’re interested, look for the following still whites: Domaine Alain Voge from the Wine Society or Lay & Wheeler; Les Vins de Vienne St Péray 2013 (£14.99) from Waitrose; the Auguste Clape and Domaine Biguet from Yapp; and Domaine du Tunnel from Berry Bros & Rudd. And some of the sparkling is lovely, too – the one in my wines of the week today should appeal to anyone who loves a glass of fizz. 

Wines of the week

Victoria Moore picks her favourite wines of the week

Domaine Biguet St Péray Mousseux Brut NV 

France (12.5%,, £18.95)

Classy methode-traditionelle sparkler made from marsanne. Ripe pears and apricot blossom – and the size of the bubbles is just right. I also love the stylish toile de Jouy-like label. All-round winner.

Pecorino Terre de Chieti 2015 

Italy (13%, Telegraph Wine, £5.99, down from £7.99 from June 8-28)

Crisp and straight-sided, a lemony sunny-weather swiller. It might be nice with broad bean and mint toasts. But a bag of salty crisps will do nicely, too.

Domaine Richeaume Cuvée  Tradition 2014 IGP Mediterranée

France (13%,, £18.50)

Hairy-chested red from Provence. A blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah and grenache noir, and you can smell the ripe blackcurrant of the cabernet. Gorgeous with barbecued lamb.